We ducked into a cave in the canyon to wait out the storm. Like all the caves in this valley, it had a name–Tip Bao. Travelers have slept here for centuries. Its insides were velvety with soot. We watched the snowfall from behind a low stone berm. Tashi passed around a bottle of Old Monk rum. He dipped his finger in his cup and flicked some rum to the sky.
“For Sharshok,” he said ironically, and downed his shot.
Sharshok had not abandoned us though. Rather, he found us dinner companions. As night turned the canyon blue, a line of travelers approached us from the direction of Karsha. The leader, wearing an army surplus coat, arrived at the cave’s mouth and began to speak to Tashi in Zanskari.
“We need to make room,” he said. “The queen is coming.”
Porters, pilgrims, traders, the ill heading for the hospital, one-by-one, shuffled into the cave. Thirty-people perched around three campfires in the cave. I scanned the flickering shadows for the queen. Traditional Zanskari women wear headdresses stitched with columns of turquoise stones. The queen’s only material signs of royalty were a turquoise and a ruby ring, both set in silver.
She introduced herself as Padma Lamo, the second queen of one of two kings of Zanskar. Her husband’s dynasty had ruled since the time of William the Conqueror. Padma, like many travelers, trekked the Chadar to reach family in Leh. “I’m on my way to visit my 16- and 14-year-old daughters at boarding school,” she told me through Tashi.
The saying goes that if the Woma pass isn’t frozen, the only way to get across ‘is with wings’
Like most people in Zanskar, Padma aligned climate change with the spirits and karma. Before I left, I consulted a local holy woman, and she said the warming temperatures were a result of the people’s spiritual failings. “People have become too materialistic. They go to the monastery to compete with their neighbors. They make extravagant donations so their neighbors will see how much money they have,” she had said. Padma Lamo didn’t have the same worry about materialism, but she too dismissed talk about greenhouse gasses. She was more concerned with bringing schools and clinics to Zanskar.
I asked Padma how the path looked ahead, and she told me that her team had come to a narrow bend in the river, known as Woma, a day-and-a-half’s journey upstream. The saying goes that if the Woma pass isn’t frozen, the only way to get across “is with wings.” The queen’s crew had found Woma but it was four feet underwater, so she waded across. She leveled her hand to her chest: “I’m still damp.”
The others gathered around. They began to speak about the 26-year-old porter named Joldin who had died on the Chadar the previous year. He had been pulling a sled with a rope wrapped around his hand when the sled fell through the ice and dragged him under. It had been the first death since a party of 30 drowned a century ago. He was a friend of a young man named Tanzim Nimbum, also at the fire, who had trekked the Chadar only twice before. Nimbum watched the fire silently as the others speculated about the death.
“They say he went off alone when it happened,” said Tsering Chosjore, the head porter. “And I hear he was running on the ice.”
“A real tragedy,” Tashi said. “He had children too.”
“When I first started trekking the Chadar 12 years ago, the ice was nine or 10 layers deep,” Paljore Khangchang, the cook, chimed in. “You’d fall through one or two layers and there’d still be ice underneath, and the bottom layer was unbreakable. These days, two, three layers maximum.”
The following morning we could not see the ice for the snow, but we heard the rush of the river, a ubiquitous white noise. Only a day earlier, I had barely raised my feet so as not to slip. Now, I was doing a high march to get my heels out of the four-foot snow. We marched single file. At the front, Tashi broke a fresh path. The long line of us matched his gait, landing where his steps had packed the snow. For the followers it took total concentration, like a mimicking game. For the leader, it was a high-stakes game of trial and error, testing the integrity of the ice with each step.
Gradually, as days passed, the gorge walls lost what little slope they had until they stood bluish gray and black, wet from the snow collecting in their grooves.
“Is this Woma?” I asked Tashi.
“This is the start,” he said. The ice slowly retracted to a foot-wide plank frozen along the shear rock above the river. We walked leaning against the rock wall, our gloves slick with its moisture.
And then, suddenly, I was swimming. I don’t remember the sensation of the ice cracking from the wall. I didn’t feel pain—not yet. Water rushed into my boots and under my coat. I watched my fleece gloves soak, then freeze into stiff gauntlets. My hands burned. I was neck deep with no bottom, the current pulling at me.